Marketing your independent film is the toughest, most time-consuming and most expensive part of the filmmaking process.
You think making the movie was tough? You ain’t seen nothing yet.
Now that the film is complete, you’re probably ready for the easy part: the red carpet, the legions of adoring fans and the obscenely huge buckets of dollars (and, even better, euros).
Guess again. Building an audience will be far tougher than making your film.
In fact, even if you have a distribution deal, much of the hard work of reaching out to your audience remains with you, the indie DIY filmmaker. It doesn’t matter if you plan to do festivals, theatrical, DVD, Internet VOD, TV sales and/or any combination of exhibition, licensing and distribution methods. You still need to do the basics of film marketing — and here they are.
1. Build an email mailing list — and use it.
Every time you interact with humans, you should be collecting email addresses. At film festivals or theaters where your film shows, always have at least two clipboards that you send around the audience during the Q&A period. When you speak in front of film students, do the same. When you meet people and talk about the film, get their cards or at least their email address. On your website, allow people to sign up to “join your inner circle.”
Of course, also add in all the emails from your own personal email address book — all your friends, family, work colleagues, classmates and anyone else you have ever emailed all deserve to know what you’re up to. You will be surprised to find out who goes out of their way to attend your screening — long lost friends and people you didn’t consider to be “inner circle” except that you decided to include them in the email list.
That’s a $10 ticket that you wouldn’t have otherwise sold.
And so, on a semi-regular basis, send out emails to your list. I use VerticalResponse.com, but there are other email list management tool options as well, including Yahoo Groups (not perfect, but perfectly free at least). You want to keep your fans up to date on the film, plus alert them to special events, screenings, DVD releases, special promotions and more.
The people who sign up to your mailing list are the ones most likely to buy the DVD, so treat them well and let them feel like they are part of the team.
2. Build a website — keep it current.
You’d think it would be obvious in the Internet Age, but building a website is often forgotten or relegated to a side project, while the Important Things are done.
Don’t be stupid: your website is the center of your film’s universe. Make it worthy. Start it early. And don’t let it languish. Keep it alive!
Put in all the basics:
- Trailer and/or other video clips
- Plot summary (but don’t give away the ending)
- Filmmaker blog
- Still/photos from the film
- Cast/crew information
- Background info (i.e. behind the scenes stuff)
- Links to reviews, awards, interviews and articles
- Email sign-up
- Where to see the film
- Where to buy the DVD (ideally right there on the website)
- How to contact you
- Anything else you can add to build out the universe of the film and the filmmakers for your hardcore fans
You should build the website to be an extension of your film — it should have the same feel as your movie.
Also, don’t design it yourself if you’re not a web designer already. You wouldn’t have an amateur be your sound recorder or DP and you shouldn’t have an amateur (you) be the web designer.
Hire someone experienced to make it look great — or find an art/design student who will do it for free (but expect less than paid work would provide).
3. Get the film on Facebook, MySpace & YouTube — and the other video-friendly social networking sites.
Reaching out to your audience has never been easier thanks to the social media companies like Facebook and YouTube. They have literally hundreds of millions of (mostly young) users that are all eagerly wasting their time looking for the next cool thing. You know this already, since you’re probably one of them.
Social networking sites (especially MySpace) have launched a renaissance in independent music marketing, helping bands and acts reach new audiences outside of the traditional (deflating) recording industry.
You can leverage these sites for your film as well.
Simply create profiles for your film on each of these sites and invite like-minded people to be your “friends” — and then as your list of friends grows, you can send messages and promotions out to them, just as you would on your email list.
As with your website itself, your profiles should be extensions of your film, with photos, personality/text, backgrounds (in MySpace) and, of course, video, directly from your movie.
4. Start a blog — and use it.
Even if you’re only in the screenwriting phase of your film, you can still start a blog and keep a filmmaker’s journal. Many indie filmmakers (including my filmmaking partner Benjamin Morgan and I) have actually published books based (at least in part) on these journals.
The blog is a great way to capture the moment-to-moment bluster of filmmaking, while also providing an outlet for random related thoughts and links to related sites.
As time goes on, you will have an increasingly impressive amount of generated content and the dedicated (obsessive) fan will love you for it.
You also permit the search engines (i.e. Google) and thus random web surfers another way in to your film, since blog posts appear in search results.
Over time, your blog may morph into the whole website for your film. Where once the blog was the entire destination site, it may become just another section.
You can get a free blog on Blogger, but I prefer Typepad, due to the tools available. WordPress is extremely popular as well.
Bonus suggestion: create a Wikipedia entry for your film and link to it from related (100% relevant) other Wikipedia pages. We get an enormous amount of traffic this way. Don’t spam them and link on semi-related pages — and don’t get too frustrated if your links disappear. Life in the wiki lane is fast, fickle and prickly.
5. Contact websites, blogs and press that focus on your target audience.
Basically, you need to think like a publicist. You need to figure out who you’re trying to reach (the target audience) and where they get their niche-specific information.
Most often, the most accessible outlets for you will be bloggers within the subject covered by your film. These are the thought-leaders and influencers that will make the average person who might be interested in your film say “oh yeah, I heard about that movie — I want to see it.”
Of course, in order to do this type of niche publicity, your film needs to appeal to a tightly-defined target audience, not a general audience.
In fact, if you think your movie plays best to a general audience, you’re probably already out of luck — unless you have a hundred million dollars to spend on advertising it. That’s Hollywood’s racket and if you can’t pay to play, going niche is the way.
So instead, smart indie DIY filmmakers know that their films need to focus on a small, defined target audience (i.e. graffiti writers, Greek-American families, backyard wrestlers, etc.) and they relentlessly build relationships with the media outlets that serve their audience.
Start as early as possible once you have a script — even ask them to spread the word if you’re looking for extras (even Star Trek used fans as extras in the first movie to build buzz among their core audience). When you’re ready to release the film and/or have a premiere screening, the key players already know about you and are on your side pumping up the troops.
6. Contact local press (reviewers, entertainment section & even features).
Never underestimate the power of the “local kid does good” story. It doesn’t matter how small or big your hometown paper is — they thrive on this sort of thing.
And so do local weekly magazines, local TV and local radio — plus local websites of course too.
It doesn’t matter if your film is showing in the local town or not — some small town papers will run anything even if your film is premiering thousand of miles away (remember, they have to fill a newspaper with new stories every day of the year).
Get them a press release and follow-up with emails and phone calls. Try to give them a week in advance of any specific event, following up as the date draws near. Offering interviews, free tickets, exclusive video previews (for their websites or TV newscast), whatever.
And remember, you don’t just have one hometown — you probably have many:
- Where you were born
- Where you were raised
- Where you went to college
- Where you live now
- Where your film’s star(s) live now (and were born, etc.)
- Where the film was shot
Our film had three solid hometowns (where the film was shot, where the director lived and where the filmmakers went to school). We did our best theatrical business in each of these — and they had the best press coverage too.
7. Flyers, flyers, everywhere.
Outside of the Internet (in the so-called real world), your best marketing tool is the postcard — also known in the indie music and film world as the flyer.
You’ve seen these as art house theaters promoting upcoming films. They are literally the size of a postcard and often can be sent in the mail like a real postcard. You’ve also seen these at bars and dance clubs — colorful (often outrageous) flyers are everywhere in the nightlife scene, promoting parties, DJs, concerts and clubs.
You should think of your film as it was a concert and get thousands of flyers printed up and distributed widely — in many of the same places where bands promote their gigs the same way: bars, clubs, cafes, bookstores, theaters, college campuses, restaurants near the theater and so on. Obviously, you only want to do this in towns where your film is playing — including at film festivals.
Of course, it depends on your target audience (as always): where does your audience go? Since your film is likely an indie film, you can be pretty sure that there is a ton of overlap with the average indie band or DJ-based club. But with some films (for instance, documentaries), your subject-matter may find you dropping off flyers at health clinics or garden centers, depending on your topic.
You can get cheap, full-color printing done by any number of printers, many of whom advertise via Google (do a search for “postcard printing” and you’ll see the offers). I’ve used Overnight Prints mostly — their best deal is if you search on “overnight postcards” on Google and click on their ad (it’s usually a special sale price).
Bonus tip: You can also make up your own cheap full-color business cards through many of these same printers.
How many flyers should you leave at a location? Rarely more than four or five — sometimes I only drop a stack of two or three. Don’t leave a stack of fifty or hundred. It’s a complete waste and you’ve just limited the number of places where the flyers will appear. And, due to the huge stack, it looks like no one is picking up the flyers. Sad to say, herd mentality rules for film marketing and you want people to think that EVERYONE has heard about it and is interested.
They should feel lucky to get one of the last three or four flyers for your film.
But wait, there’s more….
There’s a lot more to marketing your film — but these are the bare minimum basics every filmmaker should do.
It’s a ton of work and there’s no guarantee you’ll make the buckets of cash — but if you ever want anyone to actually see the film you worked so hard on, you gotta step it up.
Good luck and feel free to add your cheap/free indie marketing suggestions in the comments.
About the author
Brant J. Smith is the producer of the underground indie film hit Quality of Life, which won a prestigious Special Mention jury award at the Berlin Int’l Film Festival and went on to a limited nationwide theatrical release. Besides his film and internet marketing work, he also teaches a popular filmmaking class at UC Santa Cruz.
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